Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kyrgyz Perceptions of the American Transit Center at Manas Airport

Named after the eponymous hero of the “Manas Epos,” the Kyrgyz national epic, the American Transit Center at the Manas airport near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan was originally opened through an agreement with Kyrgyzstan’s former President, Askar Akayev, in December of 2001 to support operations in Afghanistan. The siting of the base in Kyrgyzstan was a political coup for Akayev -- the government of Tajikistan had also hoped to negotiate a deal to open an airbase, but Manas was ultimately chosen instead – and brought much-needed money into the sagging Kyrgyz economy, factors that both helped to shore up Akayev’s legitimacy during a period in which his government was becoming increasingly unpopular.

From the very beginning, however, the Transit Center has been mired in controversy. During the Akayev era, much of the money that was flowing into Kyrgyzstan through Manas ended up in the hands of corrupt government insiders, including members of Akayev’s family. As Alexander Cooley has noted, “[t]he lion’s share of base-related funds flowed not to national agencies… but to private Kyrgyz entities closely tied to the ruling regime.” When Akayev was ousted in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, took a harder line on the base, and demanded more money from the U.S. government to continue operating the base. Although Bakiyev was only able to extract limited concessions from the United States, he was successful in exploiting the popular association of the Manas Transit Center with the corruption of the Akayev regime. This perception has only continued to grow, since successive Kyrgyz governments have enriched themselves through Manas. Indeed, one analyst has written that Manas “has become a milling method for the ruling elite.” Many local businessmen, moreover, have begun to complain that lobster, choice cuts of meat, and other gourmet food is being smuggled off the base by figures associated with organized crime and being sold at below-market prices in Bishkek, effectively undercutting their business. Decades of corruption and criminal activity have thus bred no small amount of resentment towards the presence of the Transit Center.

Another factor that contributes to bitterness vis-à-vis Manas is the widespread perception that the United States is an arrogant, imperialist power. Noise from the airbase, as well as jettisoning of fuel by American aircraft have enraged locals, as have incidents, such as a 2006 collision involving an American KC-135 Stratotanker and a civilian Tu-154. The handling of the 2006 shooting of Aleksandr Ivanov, a Kyrgyzstani driver who worked on the base, by Zachary Hatfield, an Air Force serviceman, only added to the perception that the United States has little regard for Kyrgyzstan beyond its utility as an airbase. Hatfield was never charged, and Ivanov’s family was offered $2000 in recompense, which Harper’s notes was “an act widely viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a calculated insult.” Harper's goes on to note that “The American management of the incident was totally bungled, leaving the local population with the idea that the Americans on the base were arrogant and not accountable to the law. The public’s view of Americans underwent a radical and sudden transformation. A nation once seen as generous benefactors now were seen as arrogant bullies.”

In the wake of the May, 2013 crash of another KC-135 at Manas, similar concerns are once again being voiced. There have been complaints that the Americans have been “obstructing” the examination by Kyrgyz authorities of the bodies of the servicemen killed in the crash. Although the United States is within its right to do so, such actions nevertheless contribute to the widespread view that the U.S. is supercilious and condescending towards its Kyrgyz counterparts. Others have gone so far as to say the way the United States handled the crash site effectively denied Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty over parts of its own territory. In early May, a youth group, Zhon Ele, which has previously called for investigations into possible human rights violations, human trafficking, and drug smuggling at Manas, as well as into allegations that nuclear weapons targeted at Iran were located there (allegations that have been strenuously denied), held a protest against the base in Bishkek, shouting slogans like “Yankees, get out of Kyrgyzstan,” “Yankees, go home,” and “No to transit of NATO weapons.” They argued that military equipment had “no place adjacent to a civilian and international airport” and warned of the possibility that a fuel laden tanker jet could crash into a nearby city. Others in the Kyrgyz government have raised the spectre of American military aircraft crashing into the Chavlodar power plant, which is in the region. In an interview with Eurasianet, Roza Otunbayeva, the former President of Kyrgyzstan, claimed that the “whole [Kyrgyz] nation” worries of the possibility that the military base could become a target for terrorists. The base’s very proximity to Bishkek is therefore a major concern, at least from a security standpoint. 

Pressure from Russia is another major driver of Kyrgyz concerns vis-à-vis the Transit Center at Manas. Kyrgyzstan remains largely dependent on Russia for its military, economic, and energy needs, and so cannot afford to ignore Moscow. As Josh Kucera at Eurasianet has pointed out, “the Kremlin has offered a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, which Russian officials have said is intended to shore up their geopolitical position in Central Asia, at the expense of the U.S.’s.” Kyrgyzstan is part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, and a Russian airbase in the city of Kant was established shortly after the U.S. began operating out of Manas. President Atambayev, moreover, appears to value closer ties with Russia than did his predecessors. Although he has declared that there will be “no military equipment” at Manas after 2014 and advocated turning the airport into a civilian hub, there have nevertheless been talks regarding the potential for developing a “joint Kyrgyzstan-Russian logistics center” at the base.

As of May 21, 2013, Kyrgyzstan has declared that the American Transit Center at Manas will indeed be closed by the end of 2014, as previously announced. Although some worry that the Americans’ departure will leave a deep hole in the Kyrgyz economy, President Atambayev has assured the public that the roughly 60 million dollars that will leave the country will be compensated by revenue from “other projects.” Barring any major developments, then, it would appear that Manas will indeed close according to the schedule dictated by the Kyrgyz government. Due to ongoing corruption associated with the base, perceptions that the Transit Center is an outpost for an arrogant and dismissive American empire, and continuing pressure from Kyrgyzstan's most important ally, Russia, local views of the American presence at Manas are not positive. Aside from those deriving direct benefit from the base’s continued operation – corrupt officials, organized crime, and regular employees who work at the base – it would appear that few in Kyrgyzstan will mourn its demise.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Russia Buys Production Rights for Ukrainian Transport Planes (commentary originally published in the April issue of Operational Watch)

          Exerting influence over the operations of Kyiv aircraft plant Construction Bureau (CB) Antonov has been a long-term goal of Russia because CB Antonov is one of the two fully functional plants on the post-Soviet territory in which the entire chain of aircraft development and production can be found under a single roof. While the other similar plant, CB Sukhoy, is capable of producing military airplanes, CB Antonov produces military, cargo, and passenger aircraft. Thus, CB Antonov is strategically important to Russia. The excerpt from the accompanying article discusses the recent agreement between the Samara aircraft plant Aviakor and CB Antonov for the transfer of intellectual property rights relating to the transport versions of passenger aircrafts AN-140S and AN-140T. This means that Aviakor will obtain proprietary maintenance rights for these aircraft, to extend its resources, and to alter the design without the Antonov design bureau’s involvement. These aircraft will replace the Russian Air Force’s AN-24 and AN-26 – the light military transport planes of which the Russian military owns around 300.  A contract with CB Antonov will enable the Russian Air Force to buy AN-140s from a Russian company, thus bypassing Ukraine.  It will also allow Russia to build a fleet of domestic aircraft. 

         Earlier, Russian Aviakor had complained about having to deal with the Ukrainian design bureau, which owned the relevant intellectual property and proprietary inspection rights, in order to eliminate defects discovered while using AN-140 aircraft purchased from CB Antonov. Aviakor was dissatisfied with the lengthy procedures and the nuisance of having to wait for Ukrainian approval before making alterations to the plane’s design. With the transfer of intellectual property rights to Russian Aviakor, which cost Russia several hundreds of millions of dollars, the situation has changed.  The main benefit of this deal is that it gives Russia full control over the purchase of aircraft from a Russian company Aviakor, thus assuring independence from political factors arising from dealing with foreign corporations.  Aviation expert Anton Lavrov, cited in the excerpt from the accompanying article, said that it is a common practice for other countries such as China to purchase property rights over foreign airplanes; however, this is the first time Russia has made such an agreement with a foreign company. 

         Collaboration in the airplane construction industry has thus been used by Russia to further its political agenda. For example, Mikhail Zubarov, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, recently announced that Russia is ending its collaboration with Ukraine to produce AN-70 military and cargo aircraft. The status of projects related to the modernization of AN-140 and AN-124 fleets is currently in question as well. In fact, some experts believe that Russian plans to modernize Ukrainian airplanes without Ukraine’s participation are evidence of a direct attack against Ukrainian aircraft construction industry. This may be intended to pressure Ukraine into joining the Russian-dominated Customs Union, which would jeopardize Ukraine’s participation in the World Trade Organization. 

         There are no legal barriers excluding Russia from modernizing its fleet now that Russia owns the intellectual property rights to several Ukrainian aircraft. However, Russia may lack the expertise to conduct its own modernizations, and may therefore attempt to outsource Ukrainian engineers and experts. Although this situation has obvious negative consequences for Ukraine, it also has the potential to open up additional opportunities for Ukraine’s collaboration with the West and South-East Asia. Ukraine would be forced to search for partners other than Russia to ensure the long-term sustainability of its strategically important aircraft building industry.

Source:  Aleksey Mikhaylov, “Russia Is Purchasing the Rights to the Ukrainian An-140T Airplane. The Air Force Will Not Have To Depend on Foreign Suppliers,” Izvestiya Online, 27 March 2013.